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Illness prevention and treatment

April 10, 2012

How to help prevent age-related eye diseases

As you age, your chances of developing macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataracts and retinal detachment increase. But new treatments can help.

Margaret Mackinnon is raging against the dying of the light. Diagnosed 12 years ago with age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a condition in which a part of the retina deteriorates dramatically and impairs vision, the 91-year-old Dartmouth, N.S., native has made it her mission to preserve her quality of life.

She still plays piano, performing at church services even though she’s now legally blind. “I used to play by note,” she says. “Now I play by ear.”

When she realized she could no longer read well, she asked an employee at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) to help her reconfigure her computer, enlarging the type size exponentially. And through the CNIB, she took courses to learn how to navigate the city with a white cane.

When MacKinnon was first diagnosed with AMD in 1999, doctors had little to offer her. “A specialist looked into both my eyes and said, ‘There’s nothing I can do for you,’” she recalls.

But since then much progress has been made. Studies have shown that through vitamin supplementation and certain drugs, the condition can be slowed significantly. “If they catch it when it’s just starting,” says Mackinnon, “there’s a chance things will be all right.”

Age-related eye diseases

  • Age-related macular degeneration (AMD): This condition occurs when the middle area of the retina, called the macula, gets damaged. It is the leading cause of blindness and its prevalence is projected to increase by more than 50% by 2020, according to Dr. Feisal Adatia, an ophthalmologist and medical and surgical retina specialist at the University of Calgary. An estimated one million Canadians have some form of AMD, according to the CNIB.

  • Cataracts: These occur when the lens of the eye becomes cloudy. They are very common in older people, particularly those over 80. Learn more about treatments for cataracts.

  • Glaucoma: This is the second-most-common cause of vision loss in seniors in Canada, according to the CNIB. Caused by damage to the optic nerve, its symptoms include loss of peripheral vision.

  • Retinal detachments: Though rare, this separation of the light-sensitive membrane in the back of the eye (the retina) from its supporting layers leads to loss of vision. Symptoms include flashes of light on the periphery of the field of vision, floaters or blurred vision.

  • Diabetic retinopathy: A complication of diabetes, this condition results from damage to the blood vessels of the retina. It causes blurred vision in its early stages. Learn more about managing diabetes.

New treatments for eye diseases

While conditions such as cataracts, glaucoma and diabetic retinopathy can be corrected through laser surgery or medication, others such as macular degeneration can just be slowed. The key is to get your eyes checked by an ophthalmologist annually, especially if you have a close family member with eye disease.

You should also examine your lifestyle. Many experts now say that lifestyle changes can play a big part in halting these diseases.

In the case of macular degeneration, there are ways to reduce your risk, says Lori Lyons, scientific information officer at The Foundation Fighting Blindness in Toronto. “For example, smokers are twice as likely to get AMD as non-smokers. And some studies have suggested that people who eat a diet high in trans and saturated fatty acids are more at risk, while other types of fats, such as those found in fish, are protective.”

Adatia says the Age-Related Eye Disease Study (AREDS), which involved 3,640 AMD patients (aged 55 to 80) taking daily high doses of vitamin C (500 mg), vitamin E (400 IU), beta carotene (15 mg), zinc oxide (80 mg) and cupric oxide (2 mg), showed the supplements slowed the disease considerably.

He now tells his patients to take the AREDS supplements as well as omega-3s, and to eat more green leafy vegetables, whole grains and fish. Quitting smoking, maintaining a healthy weight, wearing sunglasses to protect the retina and monitoring blood pressure are also critical. And new medications combating AMD have also emerged. “A new class of drugs called anti-VEGF therapies has become available,” says Lyons. “When injected into the eyes, these drugs can stop the progression of wet AMD for most people, and restore vision to many.”

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